By hook or by crook

I went to two talks by David Crystal at Bangor University yesterday – one was entitled “By Hook or by Crook” and the other was on Shakespeare’s English, focusing particularly on original pronunciation (OP) – a reconstruction of the way people spoke in Shakepeare’s day. Both talks were fascinating and full of information and anecdotes.

In the first David explained how he finds interesting linguistics tidbits wherever he goes, and that when he’s at a loose end, he’ll go wandering in search of them. For example, on a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, he also went to Snitterfield, a small village nearby where Shakepeare’s grandfather lived. He discovered that the snitter in Snitterfield comes from snyten, an old word for snipe, from the Old English sníte. So he wondered whether there were any snipe around and asked a local, who said that he’d seen a wisp of snipe recently.

The word wisp caught David’s attention, and this set him thinking about where collective nouns like this come from. He discovered that the first known appearance in writing of a lot of them is in lists compiled in monastries in the medieval period. He thought that the monks might have come up with some of these collective nouns as a game – the sort of thing that still happens.

As he was describing some of the linguistic tangents he pursues, I realised that I often do something similar and write about them here. Although I haven’t written any books yet – David has written over 100.

The second talk gave examples of how some passages in Shakespeare work better in OP. Some rhymes and jokes, for example, only work in OP. He gave lots of examples, which I don’t remember, unfortunately.

3 thoughts on “By hook or by crook

  1. To be honest I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare’s works mainly because of being forced to read and study his material while at school. The only Shakespearean pun I can recall off the top of my head the meaning of which has been lost due to the changes in English pronunciation over the centuries, is from Henry IV:
    “If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.”
    ‘Reason’ in Shakespeare’s time was pronounced as ‘raisin’.

  2. Regarding the etymology of the marsh bird snipe (Gallinago gallinago) I found in the dictionary:
    sníte – a snipe (bird) and I guess it’s connected to:
    snýtan, snýting – blowing of the nose, clearing the nose, sneezing.
    snyđian – to go nose or beak forwards, of a plough, of a dog with its nose to the ground.

    I don’t know how I’ve missed this all these years but I never registered the connection between the bird ‘snipe’ and the word ‘sniper’?
    Apparently sniper, sharpshooter, marksman who shoots at people from a concealed place, derives from the shooting skills of soldiers in British India alluding to the difficult task of shooting snipe which are mostly concealed and hard to target.
    My Welsh doesn’t help make the connection either as ‘snipe’ is gïach (Breton: gioc’h, Cornish: kiogh) and ‘sniper’ is a completely unrelated and divorced from gïach, ‘saethwr cudd’ (concealed shooter).

  3. Here are some examples from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

    “Fare thee well, nymph. Ere he do leave this grove,
    Thou shalt fly him and he shall seek thy love.”

    “And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes
    And make her full of hateful fantasies.”

    “You spotted snakes with double tongue,
     Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen.
     Newts and blindworms, do no wrong.
     Come not near our fairy queen.”

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